I confess—I dog-ear my books (though only my own, not library copies or borrowed ones). Whenever I come across ideas or quotes that pique my interest, I fold over the corner of the page. Not infrequently, the top corner is folded one direction and the bottom, the other.
When I’ve read the book, I then have the pleasure of rereading the marked pages. Sometimes I can’t recall why I marked a page in the first place, so I pour over the text trying to remember. Other times, although I know what attracted me initially, that’s not what grabs me this go-round.
I think that’s what I am trying to do with the lives of my children. When a memory happens—and not just the big ones—I fold over the moment and mark it in my subconscious. Then I put it on paper.
Just this morning, while I was washing breakfast dishes, my eight-year-old son slipped up behind me, wrapped his arms around my waist, squeezed and then let go. Soapy foam sprayed the blue countertop as his ginger spikes receded into the mudroom to get ready for school.
Returning to the memory now, I savor my surprise and pleasure at the unexpected hug. I see Joseph’s scrunched-up smile burrowing into my side. A sprinkle of soap bubbles, like fairy dust, winks from the counter. I can even feel the water that spewed from the sponge.
What makes the memory special is that, now, even just a few hours later, Joseph has already changed. He’s already grown, and that particular spurt happened when I wasn’t around. His teacher, sometimes with my sympathy, gets to witness much of what I miss. When I pick Joseph up this afternoon, in some ways he’ll be a different person. Not entirely different, but not exactly the same kid who launched a surprise hug this morning either.
Dog-earing these memories anchors me in a world that sometimes feels like it’s on permanent fast-forward. Yes, my children are growing, but these memories are mine. The collection expands daily, sometimes hourly, full of the mundane, events that lose their ordinariness only as time passes. My children are anchored to here, to the present, to now, whenever now may be.
But a little voice taunts, “what about the times you forget? They’re gone.”
So I write.
One Lent, long before I had children, I didn’t want to be traditional and give up chocolate to mark the holy period before Easter. Instead, I decided to write a postcard to my grandmother (who lived about six hours away) every week. To my surprise, I enjoyed writing the weekly note as much as she enjoyed receiving it. So when Lent ended, I kept up the discipline.
A few years later, I got married and moved away. Then I wrote two postcards every week. Grandmothers on both sides of the state received regular updates. The subject matter grew decidedly more interesting about five years later when our daughter Madeleine was born. The postcard evolved into a letter when we moved to England. A square of cardboard simply wasn’t adequate to cover everything we were experiencing in this new culture with a five-month-old about to crawl.
By this time, my maternal grandmother had developed severe dementia, and my paternal grandmother was in an assisted living facility. Goggie was struggling mightily with the effects of age-related macular degeneration, an especially brutal condition for someone who loved to read. (She would be horrified to know one of her grandchildren dog-ears books—hopefully the other cousins live up to her standards.)
Goggie had a gadget on the television that magnified her reading material, allowing her several more years of book-based pleasure. Not long before she died, however, she confided to me that reading had grown too tiresome for her to do very often. The magnification needed to be so intense that only a few words fit on the screen at a time. She had to move her reading material back and forth and up and down constantly to see the whole text. Reading, once her chief pleasure, was now exhausting. But no matter what, she always read my letter.
The opportunity to share my weekly missives increased her enjoyment of them exponentially. When my dad ate lunch with her, he’d get to read the latest installment. My mom also visited often, and Goggie would share the letter then too. Sometimes my grandmother would summon my parents on the phone, saying, “You’ve got to come read what Maddie’s done now.” How could they not go running?
Daddy asked more than once if I’d copy the letter and send it to them too. But I never did. Being the sole possessor of it made Goggie feel special, and it was the one thing I could do for her from across the Atlantic. I loved that this little thing brought her so much pleasure.
Giving me a hug after one visit, Goggie said, “I’ve loved seeing you Dauenhauers, but I sure will be glad to get your letter again.” I’m still not sure that I wasn’t being summarily dismissed in favor of a piece of paper.
About six weeks before I gave birth to Joseph in London, Goggie died in Georgia. When she did, the letter died too—in part because she wasn’t on the receiving end, but mostly because we had become a family of four. Dog-eared or not, my memories of that time with a newborn and a 2 ½-year-old are a blur of sleep deprivation and struggle. While I’d felt born to be a mom with our first child, after Joseph’s arrival, I wondered why we’d thought multiple children were a good idea. Letters were not a priority.
However, it didn’t take long before I realized I missed writing my weekly missives. When I knew I’d be recording the week in written form, I paid attention more closely. I noticed things—the funny looks on my children’s faces when they tried a new food, how little it took to crack up a six-month-old. I could sort-of laugh, at least later when recording the experience, about the time Maddie’s mega-tantrum caused the preschool head teacher to console her with chocolate just to shut her up.
I suppose writing the letters had inadvertently made me a writer. I have always harbored a secret ambition to be an author. But, by my definition, authors had to be published, and by published what I really meant was widely read. The letters were inconsequential—no publishing house was planning to put them in book form.
What I learned then, through my hiatus from letter writing, is that being a writer is not about being published. When I give myself the time and space to write, I find details demand to be recorded. I’m not an artist or a photographer, but I think the impulse must be the same—experiencing things, concrete or emotional, so intensely they simply must be chronicled. When I wrote regularly, even though it wasn’t for publication, I noticed regularly. I participated in my own life so much more vigorously. When I wasn’t writing, life seemed more about existing and just getting by.
Eventually the letters started again, although Joseph was nearing a year before they had any regularity to them. With Goggie gone, the recipient list grew—my parents, my in-laws, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. Even family friends requested to be added to the list.
The medium changed. I turned to email for distribution purposes. My brother-in-law suggested blogging and including pictures. But there’s something about an old-fashioned (as old fashioned as an email attachment can be) letter. My husband who knows every detail of the letters intimately before they’re ever written, says even he gets a thrill when the subject line “Attached Letter” lands in his in-box. I’m not sure that an always-accessible blog page would have quite the same impact.
Every week or so when I click “send” and my letter fans out to computers around the world, I am reminded that it’s the small things that ultimately give us the most pleasure. Our lives unfold in details—no matter where we have gone or what we have done, the details of the experience are what interest people.
When I took stock at the end of last summer, though, I realized that for most of the past year, I had been mired in the minutiae of life without finding any real meaning in it. I hadn’t been writing regularly, and I could see the effects that “just getting by” was having on me, and by extension, my family. We were all rushing and stressed and missing the good in the everyday. I made myself a promise.
Maddie’s upcoming transition to junior high, a blatant reminder that time stops for no one, was the impetus for my resolution. I would, I promised myself, extricate myself from as many volunteer jobs as possible. I would cook dinner more often, listen to my family more often, and take note of the beauty in my life more often. To do these things effectively, I knew I needed to allow myself time to process it all, to write.
Now that the leaves are down and the first puffs of snow herald the end of autumn, I ponder my experiment. Have I observed more? Gotten more out of life by doing less? Do I know my family better? Do I know myself better? Have I dog-eared any more memories?
As most women already know, I learned (again) it’s not easy to say no, especially to good causes that will help others. The requests come regularly, so I have gotten lots of practice affirming my new negative stance. As I wrote this, another email asked for help with one of Maddie’s extra-curriculars. And I was torn anew. My daughter, who has recently emerged from a stage of not wanting me around, actually asked me to help. I know the time she will want me to do stuff with her is finite, and I know I can’t get that time back. I decided that the point of my experiment was to do things deliberately, with thought, so after careful consideration, I chose to take advantage of this volunteer opportunity. It boils down to valuable time spent with my preteen.
I wish I could say that the fall unrolled in a ribbon of crisp, colorful days in which for me to write, to experience the mundane at its fullest. However, as all women also know, the ordinary easily takes precedence with no pedestal in sight. One mid-September morning, I found myself attacking an enormous pile of laundry, shoving shirts into half-done folds, obsessing over a weedy garden, and panicking because I hadn’t written in about a week. My heart raced as I thought: if my to-do list constantly replenishes itself, how am I ever supposed to get to the bottom of it, to the stuff that really matters?
Suddenly, in the midst of pulling a shirt out of the jumble, I realized, this is what matters. Not the laundry per se, but right in front of me, in the shirts and jeans and mismatched socks, was the essence of my life right now—not of everyone’s life, and not of my life forever, but of my life right now. The mundane is always there; my job is to elevate it, to make it matter. I took a deep breath, slowed down, and folded the pile of t-shirts, perhaps no more neatly but with more deliberate motions. Most importantly, before I folded, I held each piece to my nose and inhaled the clean scent.
I think that’s why I enjoy going back to my dog-eared books so much. Like taking time to smell the clean laundry, I find connections when I slow down, when I make an effort to appreciate what is already there. The turned-down corners in my books encourage me to reflect, to search for the meaning I know is there.
Part of the meaning in those books is in tracing the journey of the reader. Like my children coming home slightly different people than the kids who walked out the door in the morning, the person who read the book the first time is not the same person I am now. Knowing where I’ve been is an important part of knowing where I am now.
I think that’s also why I like to record my children’s lives in such detail. Dog-earing and recording those memories allows me, and eventually them, to trace their own journeys. Embracing who we are in a particular moment embraces the building blocks of who we will be in the future.
Like the clothes, the make-up, and the impossibly high-heeled shoes Maddie and her friends play in for dress-up, donning other personas is an important part of growing up. Trying to be someone or something else helps us to discover who we actually are. When the outer persona matches the inner one, bingo! Life is good.
That’s how I feel now. Life is good. The less-busy, more-deliberate exterior I tried on this fall seems to fit the interior me. Part of growing up is realizing there’s no end point; we are always in the process of becoming. Taking the time to revel in that process, to note the details and write the weekly letter, honors those rhythms and anchors me to now. After all, it’s only when I feel solid and anchored that I am ready to fly.